If you can think, can you think harder? I don’t think so.
In my experience “thinking hard” doesn’t work. I can still hear the voice of Mrs Hamm, my third-grade teacher, “c’mon kids, think hard.” We’re given the sense from an early age that thinking can increase in intensity by applying effort, just like walking.
In my mind, trying harder to think doesn’t work. Applying effort to thinking just seems to get in the way. Telling myself to “think harder” generates resistance and frustration, not better or more effective thinking.
But that doesn’t mean I can’t think better, or more effectively.
What does seem to work is removing barriers.
I start by reducing distractions, both internal and external. If I’m feeling diverted by my thoughts, I do a quick “mind sweep”. I write down everything that’s on my mind, big or small, personal or professional. I need to call Ed regarding the contract. I want to talk to Debbie about booking the hotel for our holiday. The client needs the proposal by Friday. Just getting these things out of my head goes a long way toward reducing internal distractions.
I also consider external distractions. I check my surroundings. If I’m feeling distracted by my environment, I see first whether I can minimize or eliminate some sources of that distraction. I close my email client (yes, it can be done). I put my phone on silent. If possible, I get out of a distracting environment altogether. If that’s not possible, I recognize that my ability to get work done that requires deep thinking may be limited. In that case it might be better to focus on quick and easy wins that require less mental resource.
Once potential diversions are eliminated, in my experience thinking is really just about focus. I’m not “thinking hard,” I’m focused on something without distraction. The only “effort” is choosing what to focus on, and then maintaining that focus. Once I’m in that state, I find that effective thinking happens very naturally.
So the key here seems to be to get out of my own way, not about applying effort. It’s as if the secret to running faster were just a matter of reducing drag, not about muscle power. Create the environment to eliminate distractions, choose your focus, and watch the ideas flow.